Minnesota’s Hidden Intercity Bus Network

The current schedule for one of the two competing Rochester-MSP shuttle operators.

The current schedule for one of the two competing Rochester-MSP shuttle operators.

There was a time when buses and trains connected the Twin Cities with every corner of Greater Minnesota. The trains are gone except for Amtrak’s Empire Builder, which has become quite unreliable and inconveniently runs west of Minneapolis in the wee hours. Except for its express link to Chicago via Eau Claire and Madison, Greyhound has completely withdrawn from the state where it was founded in 1914. Locally owned Jefferson Lines has filled many of the gaps, but conventional bus service has become sparse, mostly bypassing the small towns and running only once or twice daily.

The dreary state of traditional intercity public transportation is the direct result of competition from the private automobile. It has driven the rural buses out of business—except it hasn’t. Under the radar, a fast, frequent network of scheduled private shuttle buses and vans has appeared. Their purpose is to feed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. These airport services ignore the downtowns completely. The only other destinations they sometimes serve are the Mall of America and the VA Hospital, since both are close to the airport.

The service frequency is unprecedented, greater than ever before. Rochester now has two companies offering competing hourly non-stop service to MSP. St. Cloud has two competing carriers that together provide something close to hourly service. The Duluth carrier runs 12 times daily, as does Willmar and Eau Claire. Mankato and St. Peter have 6 daily round trips. There are additional smaller cities that see less frequent service. Here’s the list of towns served:

Albany, Albert Lea, Albertville, Alexandria, Austin, Avon, Baldwin, Baxter, Becker, Bertha, Big Lake, Brainerd, Browerville, Camp Ripley, Cannon Falls, Clarissa, Clearwater, Cold Spring, College of St. Benedict, Cyrus, Dodge Center, Duluth, Eagle Bend, Eau Claire, Elk River, Glenwood, Hewitt, Hinkley, Hudson, Le Sueur, Lewiston, Litchfield, Little Falls, Long Prairie, Mankato, Melrose, Menomonie, Monticello, Morris, New London, Northfield, Oronoco, Osakis, Owatonna, Paynesville, Pine Island, Rochester, Rogers, Sauk Centre, Scanlon, Spicer, St. Charles, St. Cloud, St. John’s University, St. Peter, Starbuck, Wadena, Waseca, Willmar, Winona, Zumbrota

Compared to traditional intercity bus fares, the new carriers are expensive. These are small vehicles, so the cost per rider is higher. Compare them to the fares of the surviving traditional carriers. One-way from Rochester is $27 (Jefferson $22), Eau Claire $39 (Greyhound $21), Duluth $42 (Jefferson $32), St. Cloud $43 (Jefferson $18), Winona $45 (Amtrak $24), Brainerd $55 (Jefferson $32), Willmar $65 (Jefferson $25), Alexandra $65 (Jefferson $32). Round trips are usually discounted somewhat.

I first researched these schedules two years ago and there have been fairly significant changes since then. A couple of carriers have exited the market. Others have added destinations and there has been some consolidation. Most notable has been the increase in service. As I read the schedules, there were 57 daily round trips in 2012, and that has grown to 97. Besides the additional trips to MSP, now carriers are starting to feed Rochester from La Crosse, Winona, Albert Lea and Mankato.

Creating a real network

Whether the fares are high or not, this is indeed a transportation network and it’s already in place. Granted, it is single purpose. It is not interconnected or coordinated. However, with a modest amount of corporate collaboration and a little public investment it could become a true regional system.

Consider what could cheaply and easily be done. The connections to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul are already there. The Blue Line LRT runs every 10 minutes to Minneapolis and the Mall of America and limited stop Route 54 runs every 15 minutes to St. Paul. From those places you can reach much of the metro area.

Here are more steps that would increase ridership.

  • Provide seamless user information on single website like Metro Transit’s trip planner. This will open up the option of multi-carrier trips through the metro from one outstate city to another.
  • Market the individual services collectively as a system.
  • Consolidate airport staffing (each carrier currently has its own agent). This will reduce cost.
  • Coordinate arrival and departure times to reduce competitive duplication, and facilitate carrier-to-carrier transfers at the airport.
  • Subsidize fares for seniors, low income persons or even the general public, or offer to buy unused seats at a discount.
  • Move the airport terminal to the bus terminal above the LRT station (the shuttles are currently at the other end of the Lindbergh parking garage) to encourage transfers to Metro Transit.
  • Locate pickups at local transit centers in cities like Duluth, St. Cloud, Winona and Rochester to encourage transfers with local transit providers. Coordinate schedule times to connect with local transit.
The shuttle ticket counter at MSP.

The shuttle ticket counter at MSP, located at the west end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp.

The airport bus station, at the other end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp, directly above the LRT station. That's the #54 to downtown St. Paul.

The airport bus station, at the other end of the Terminal 1 parking ramp, directly above the LRT station. That’s the #54 to downtown St. Paul.

I want to emphasize that the carriers would remain separate private companies. The state would simply add value by selectively investing in a service that’s already viable. The private carriers’ bottom lines would improve through lower costs, additional riders, better service coordination and joint marketing. Could it actually happen?

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.

9 thoughts on “Minnesota’s Hidden Intercity Bus Network

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    On consolidating space: Mall of America used to have a similar setup, with private buses in the north surface lot and all public transit in the east garage. They moved everything to the east garage (probably more to free up space on the north than for some transit-oriented purpose). I used to take the private Northfield-Metro Express and transfer to light rail at MOA, so this would have been handy.

    My only gripe is that it now puts significantly more traffic through the MOA transit entrance security check, a checkpoint that for some inexplicable reason is more thorough and tedious than even the entrance to the transit area at the airport.

  2. Sean

    To be clear, I am only guessing with this, but my strong suspicion is that the majority of the people on these buses are only taking them for one of two reasons:
    1) live out of the area and visiting the Mayo clinic. Have no interest in MN, except maybe the MOA.
    2) live in Rochester and taking a bus to the airport for vacation

    In both of those cases, there is a savings and convenience because
    1) the fares are cheaper than renting a car for a couple days and dealing with driving/parking in an unfamiliar area
    2) the fares are cheaper than parking at the airport for a few days, and you get dropped off right at the door

    Assuming that my assumption is (somewhat) accurate – I doubt there would be much demand for these riders to get to the rest of the metro. Even if subsidies substantially lowered the cost, I don’t see demand increasing much because the time savings of just driving yourself would be substantial. The time it would take you bus to the airport and then transfer to blue line or 54, get to a downtown, then transfer to another bus to your destination would be at least 2-3 times more than just driving.

    I think what we need to continue to spend our money on is improving transit in the cities. If we can make some of these other routes faster/better, than maybe some of these greater-MN connections you dream of will become more feasible.

    1. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs Post author

      I’m not saying many more people will use it, but for those who need a public transportation link because a car is unavailable, it’s much cheaper to build on this than create something new from scratch like the Northern Lights Express to Duluth or a high speed rail line to Rochester.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I’d be curious to know the share of riders not going to the airport. I know I’ve dropped off folks at the airport just so they can connect to a Mankato or Rochester-bound van, and I know others who have taken a shuttle to the airport just to use local transit to their final destination. Matthias, I’m looking at you bro.

        1. Matthias LeyrerMatthias Leyrer

          Yeah, sorry I didn’t read this yesterday.

          I have used the shuttle to get me just “up there” though, it’s not very cheap, but the infrequency with which I do it makes it bearable.

          I would way rather have passenger rail though.

    2. Alex

      I have used these shuttles to get between Minneapolis and Mankato or New Ulm. The Mankato shuttle, Land to Air Express, apparently believes that there is a market for transport to the rest of the metro, as it actually has several metro area stops besides the airport. The one time I used the New Ulm airport shuttle, I was one of three non-airport passengers, which represented half of the passenger load. So my experience would tend to oppose your assumption that these services are single-purpose.

    3. Janne

      Six years ago, I used one of these routes to Rochester (round trip) a couple times a month to visit my sister & niece who were in the hospital there. I don’t have a car, and usually rent a car for those sorts of trips (also to visit my parents in Austin). While it wasn’t as fast as driving my own car, it was faster and more pleasant than renting a car.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Rochester has quite the interesting private transit and paratransit array. Rochester City Lines provides commuter service from all over the place, and reverse trips from Roch to MSP. Even the Rochester WalMart provides a shuttle from downtown Rochester to their suburban location(s).

    Anyways, excellent post. I think this compliments Mike Hicks’ private bus map quite well- any chance Mike can post that link?

  4. Heidi SchallbergHeidi

    I’ve used these shuttles between MSP & Duluth and Rochester. Yeah, for Rochester I was going to Mayo, but as a local who didn’t want to drive there. Same with Duluth. In that case Jefferson Lines cancelled my return trip well in advance of a snowstorm, and so I had to take the airport shuttle to get back to St. Paul. Excellent post. I remember thinking at the time I seemed to spend a lot of time at MSP in one time period just connecting to intercity shuttles, not flights.

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